Rachelle Knowles: on the power of self inquiry

Photo by Wes Knight

Rachelle Knowles is a yoga teacher, founder of the community non-profit Cultivate Union, a lululemon ambassador and overall lovely human being. Through her practice and work with Cultivate Union Rachelle is committed to promoting sustainability, equity and access in the yoga community. She completed her 200 hour training with Kashi Atlanta and continues to learn from teachers in her community both in Atlanta and internationally. In her interview, she shares about the power of self inquiry and how it helps us stay in the moment to see each situation clearly.


I saw you were just at the lululemon Here To Be Summit in Atlanta? Would you like to tell us about the experience? It looked incredible.

Cultivate Union was one of 5 organizations that was awarded a Here To Be ambassador grant in 2017. Myself and one other founder of the 5 organizations that were selected, attended the Summit. Others included people from Give Back Yoga Foundation – Eat Breathe Thrive, Y12SR, and Yogis in Service are run by Chelsea Roff, Nikki Myers and Catherine Cook-Cottone respectively. Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts was there and Ryan Leier who’s a global ambassador.

It ended up being a chance for us to connect, to do some ground work around power, privilege, access, resources and be in relationship to those kinds of things. We spent a couple parts of the time learning how to leverage research and data. It was a really awesome time of connection and co-creation that seems really pivotal for where Here To Be will go moving forward.

I felt really honored to be part of the crew. Just to be around that many game changers and to have hard conversations. It wasn’t all conversations of, ‘we’re changing the world through yoga.’ [We asked questions like] Is yoga the right tool? How do we change how we do change and make sure we’re not perpetuating the systems of oppression and domination that we’re actually trying to be free from? Asking big questions that don’t have answers and knowing it’ll take time to figure them out.



Photo by Ross Oscar Knight

In doing my research on you, I read that your first experience with yoga was watching a Rodney Yee video. Then you went on to hot yoga and sweating everything out, leaving you where you are today with a much more mindful practice. Do you remember when yoga changed from a physical activity to a more mindful one for you?

When I picked up that first VHS, part of me felt really connected to the mystical qualities of the practice. I don’t think that ever went away. I was an athlete but I always knew there was something more to the practice. After college, about age 22, I was reading things on my own – Ram Dass books and picking up spiritual texts. I’d also taken Eastern Philosophy classes in college.

I moved to South Florida to work for my aunt’s company. I didn’t know anyone there. But in the meantime, I was doing a ton of yoga and meditation. Exploring meditation groups by myself and roaming around South Florida, seeing what was up. It is a very mystical place. There is a [big] spiritual community.

When I moved to Atlanta, I knew I was moving back to where I had left but I didn’t want to move back and do the same thing. I was committed to doing yoga teacher training I couldn’t really do arm balances so I felt I couldn’t do it. [Today] when people say things like that my response is, ‘trust me I relate, but also that’s not real.’ I called about a class at Kashi Ashram in Atlanta and showed up that night. I walked in and thought, ‘oh this is the place.’ That really set me onto a different path.  


You mention in your bio that “inquiry has been a powerful tool for self study for me.” How does inquiry and self study come into your yoga practice? Are there particular techniques you’ve found to be most effective? Why do you value self study?

What comes up in response to this question, is the overarching question of, ‘is this working for me?’ I’m a pretty fluid and flexible (no pun intended) person. It allows me to explore a lot of different paths of practice. I can ask myself, ‘I’ve been doing this, is it working for me?’ If the answer is no, I move toward a different direction. If the answer is yes, I go deeper. For example, it can be, ‘do I want to keep my feet together in Tadasana or do I want to keep my feet hip distance?’ It changes moment to moment, which is the power of it. Nothing about this practice is static — it’s dynamic and always changing. That’s why it’s super powerful.

Having practiced many different styles and with many teachers I’m clear that there is no one way. Which leads to the question of, ‘What’s the best way?’ Or ‘What is the best way for me right now?’

In terms of navigating our physical body – inquiry is such a gateway to keeping myself safe. We can get stuck in practice — in the idea that our body is a tool or mechanism for generating productivity in practice, which can look like making certain shapes or getting into a particular expression. If we’re not careful [we can] give teachers a ton of power and step away from our own source of power. For me, inquiry — when I’m on my own practicing — is a chance to stay connected to that. To ask, ‘am I actually here, in my own body?’ When I’m teaching, it’s important for me to give students the agency as well. To let them ask, Is this working? Is there another way it can work better?’ That’s really really important to me.

Photo by Ross Oscar Knight

Based on our past conversation and knowing about your collaborations with Sacred Chill {West}, your practice is largely oriented around social justice.  Am I correct in saying that? Can you share what drew you to be a social justice advocate and how your yoga practice fits into that?

That is such an interesting question. I’m such a nerd about language, and am now thinking, ‘would I call myself that?’ It’s fascinating to watch what words I lean towards and what words I stay away from. It makes me think deeper on: What does equity mean? What does justice look like? But being a yoga teacher and seeing how [social justice] infiltrates the space is so incredible. Because with yoga we are talking about our bodies, the way that we move through the world.

I had a conversation with someone at the Here To Be Summit and they said, ‘I’m just talking about doing yoga.’ My response was, ‘if you’re talking about yoga, you’re talking about people, if you’re talking about people you’re talking about culture, if you’re talking about culture, we got to talk about all this other stuff too.’ You know? It’s just not separate even if we want it to be. Trauma studies tell us that we hold so much in our bodies. When we are talking about how we move our body through the world, how could we not explore this?

I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in social justice! Weird how some things are just embedded in you and it’s hard to remember when you weren’t thinking about them.

Photo by Jennifer Song

In your bio, you introduce Cultivate Union saying, “It was anchored in my belief that yoga is one of the most democratic tools available for personal healing and social change because we all have a body and we all breathe.” Can you share more about  this? Particularly about what you mean by it being a democratic tool and the relationship between personal healing and social change?

I was really inspired by the monk and scientist Shinzen Young, who talks about democratizing enlightenment. He has all these programs, you can do them online for free as PDFs. It made me see how rare that is.

Everyone should be able to have practices that grounds them in their body where they can feel centered in a space. It doesn’t have to be yoga. Yoga is one of the most successful tools, but any somatic and body-based practice or whatever movement practice is natural to you.

Our bodies can be wrapped up in tools of productivity and doing as opposed to something that we tune into and learn to listen to as a way of navigating the world. The idea of yoga as a tool that can be democratic has to do with supporting people in connecting to the wisdom and intelligence their body holds, instead of being disconnected from it.


Photo by Jessica Murphy

On the Cultivate Union site you have a values section and one of the values is community. Can you share your definition of community?

Some words that come to mind are support and connection. There’s an idea about community that you don’t just show up when you’re feeling good – being able to know there’s something there to hold you and support you.

There’s a quote from An Aboriginal Activist Group that people use in the social justice world, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” [To me this says] I am not independent or separate from you. These practices I’m offering to you, I offer because I’m in them and they work for me. We’re here to co-create every time we practice together. Part of it has to do with lessening the hierarchy or structures of power in yoga that run very rampant.


Do you have suggestions for ways yoga teachers who are interested in using their practice for social justice but are maybe still warming up to the idea? How can they begin to incorporate it into their teaching, practice, life, etc?

Before you do anything outwardly, start doing inward reflection. I actually don’t post anything explicit about social justice work. I’ll post things that are in support of it. I personally am in this space of what’s the right platform to engage in. I spend a lot of time, reading, listening, learning, and centering the voices of people who’ve been at the margins – that’s a great thing to do.

Read books of leaders in the community and also read books by people whose voices aren’t centered whether that’s race, gender, sexual preference, sexual identity. Widen your perspective; it is so helpful.


And finally, who are 5+ yoga teachers you’d recommend the Setu community take class from?


Thank you Rachelle! It’s been a pleasure learning from you.

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